Meyer putting a pistol in his pocket

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Established October 31, 1996
Front Page Columns and Features
Last updated: 01/30/2013 3:47 AM
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Understanding Urban: Buckeyes May Put Pistol In the Pocket
By Ken Pryor

(Editor’s Note: Ken Pryor is an offensive coordinator who works with the wide receivers at North Point High School in Waldorf, Md. He has been a long-time contributor to The-Ozone, and has been asked to help us better understand Ohio State’s new offense under Urban Meyer.)

A change is occurring in the National Football League on the offensive side of the ball and this change has not gone unnoticed by Ohio State’s head coach Urban Meyer.

The Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins won’t be in the Super Bowl this coming Sunday but the San Francisco 49ers will.  All three of these teams can attribute much of their meteoric rise to success this season to their offensive scheme, a scheme they all share in likeness to some degree or another.

After a 3-6 start, the Redskins rode a seven-game winning streak to a division title. During that time period their offense became one of the best in the league. Seattle had a five-game winning streak of its own, becoming an arguable favorite to win the Super Bowl late in the season. The 49ers erased their mock nickname (Funny-Niners) and are now in prime position to win the whole thing.

The offenses led by Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, and Robert Griffin III aren't necessarily revolutionary, but these quarterbacks have ushered in a dynamic attack utilizing the quarterback at a maximum. 

What is this new phenomena?  What is this new gimmick that has the likes of Urban Meyer taking notes on how to implement the same schemes into his already vaunted Ohio State offensive attack?  None other than Pistol Offense.


It is an offense defined by options and misdirection. An offense that could propel the 49ers to a Super Bowl.

The system was created by retired Nevada head coach Chris Ault in 2005. Ault wanted to reinvent his offense and himself.  So he developed these key points for the Pistol Offense:

  • Quarterback will take snaps almost exclusively from the shotgun formation.
  • Quarterback depth will be four yards, shorter than the shotgun but with many of the benefits.
  • The running back will be positioned behind the quarterback, not beside him.
  • The new scheme consisted of five basic plays, each with dozens of variations and endless combinations of personnel. The alley guy could be a tight end, a fullback, an H-back or a slot receiver.
  • Different versions of each play uses three receivers, or two tight ends.
  • The Pistol allows an offense to utilize any type of run game, whether power, zone, counter or stretch.
  • It places the running back deeper behind the line of scrimmage, which allows him to gather steam as he approaches the hole giving him room to cut back.
  • Ault named his offense the Pistol, because it was shorter than the shotgun

Seattle still runs the more traditional attack between all of them while mixing in some zone read here and other read-option plays there –all interwoven into its pro-style offense.  The same goes for San Francisco. The Washington Redskins, however, have almost entirely melded their pro-style system with the Pistol Offense.

Early results have been mind-boggling to fans and devastating to opposing defenses. Meyer has seen this and by all accounts wants to do the same thing with his Buckeye offense taking it to another level.

Why Does Ohio State Need To Run Pistol and How Will It Work?

It’s really quite simple. While some of the specifics may be new, the underlying principle is the same one that makes any offense work: put defensive players in conflict.
When Meyer sits down to review film of the Redskins, he will see the Shanahans (Mike and Kyle) have settled on four sequential concepts in order to take advantage of defensive responses.  These concepts, while simple, are diabolical in their effectiveness.

The first and most central concept is the inside-zone read option. While the Redskins use this only a handful of times per game, The Buckeyes, on the other hand, rely somewhat heavily on inside zone read to Carlos Hyde. Inside zone read sets up everything else Meyer and Shanahan want to do. 

Meyer may come to favor running the zone read using what Chris Ault calls "Zone Bluff." Here is how it works:

If the Buckeyes were to run inside zone to their right with Hyde as the (potential) ball carrier, the first wrinkle here is that both Hyde and Braxton Miller open up away from where the play is going. This allows Miller to read the defensive end to determine whether to give the ball or keep it.

Hyde must start a path to the left but bend back to the right while looking for a crease in the defense. If the defensive end crashes down toward Hyde, Miller should pull the ball and keep it for himself.

(Washington runs Inside Zone Read Option vs. Dallas. Note the stress placed on defensive end Demarcus Ware)

This is where "bluff" comes in. The fullback, (for the sake of this column we’ll say its Bri’onte Dunn), "arc blocks" back to the left. Dunn’s primary objective is to "bluff" that he is going to block the defensive end, then go right past him to block the outside linebacker.

This technique serves several purposes. First, it prevents defenses from playing games on the back side like the “scrape exchange,” a scheme in which the defensive end crashes toward the running back while the linebacker swoops around to take the quarterback. It also causes extra indecision for that defensive end. Not only is Miller reading him, he has a fullback coming at him full speed. He has been placed in what we call the “pressure cooker.”

Defensive ends are taught specific techniques to deal with a blocker like this, but they aren’t equipped with any knowledge on how to deal with being the key on a zone read. One of the first defensive responses to the zone read is to bring a safety down to be an extra run defender. This is where Braxton Miller can really become a hell raiser.

Going back to the Redskins for a moment, in their first game, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan seemed determined to take away the Redskins' running game and stacked the box to do so. It didn’t go very well for him. The result was 304 yards and four touchdowns for Robert Griffin III.

The most devastating play also highlights the main problem with using safeties as extra run defenders against the zone read. On a 68-yard TD to Aldrick Robinson, Griffin and Alfred Morris lined up in the pistol and faked another zone read option, which allowed Robinson to get behind the deep safety. It opened the floodgates for a 28-point second quarter barrage.

Griffin is a tremendous talent, but his receivers are open because of the incredible conflict the defenders are in. Meyer probably will copy some of the ways Washington uses Griffin’s skills to put more stress on defenses vs. some of the more traditional play action.

The question then becomes whether Braxton Miller can mature as a passer and be accurate in a manner similar to Griffin. The key to this whole thing is the quarterback’s ability to make defenses pay dearly for cheating safeties up in the box.

To go with the zone read concept, the Buckeyes may add another traditional pistol play type in which the quarterback does not make a read, but simply hands the ball off. Remember on Bluff, the fullback would run at the defensive end but "arc" around him to block a linebacker? Here his objective is old fashioned run game: to blast the defensive end and take him out of the play.

A well-schooled defensive end will see the zone blocking to the right and step down. When he does this, expect the OSU fullback to come flying from the right side, and, instead of bypassing the defensive end, lay into him.

With the defensive end’s focus on all the action going to the right, the OSU fullback should be able to hook him inside and allow Hyde to cut all the way back to the left for solid gain or an easy score.

With any success, the defenses will be off-balance, but the Buckeyes will still have yet another card to play: the outside zone to Morris.

You do remember outside zone don’t you? Shanahan used it to rack up huge yards for Terrell Davis and two Super Bowls for his Denver Broncos teams. It remains the cornerstone of the Shanahan running game, and it's also the link between the old Shanahan offense and the new, explosive one he, his son, and Griffin have developed in Washington.

By the time this concept is employed, defenses will realize that they simply cannot stop everything. They’ve got safeties playing deep in fear of the big play, but they’re playing a defensive front that can’t account for an offensive formation with a strength to the right side because of the confusion thrown at the defensive end all game. The result is that the Buckeyes can now run the outside zone with a lead blocker right at a defense that doesn't have the numbers or perhaps the will to stop it.

Carlos Hyde could rack up 200 yards rushing against a defense that knows what’s coming simply because they know everything else is coming too.

The Pistol Zone Read, even when synthesized with traditional pro-style plays, is not a football revolution. But, if the Buckeyes execute correctly, the defense simply doesn't have enough numbers to defend everything.

This season will be tremendously exciting to watch. Urban Meyer has the talented quarterback in Miller and a bevy of backs to choose from. If opponents thought the Buckeyes were strong on offense last year, wait until they get a load of an offensive attack that utterly maximizes the respective skill sets of its offensive players.

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